"Ow!" I hissed in through my teeth, when I accidentally put too much weight on my injured leg. Without comment, my sister Belladene pulled on my shoulders so she was supporting more of my weight.
Suddenly, she stopped dead. Looking up from where I placed my feet, I gasped when I saw what had caught her attention. Standing before us in the ruins of the People's Palace were a handsome man whose hand tightened on his sword hilt at the sight of us, and a blonde woman dressed in the red leathers of the Mord'Sith.
Beside me, Belle tightened her fingers on her own agiel. "Did the Master send you?" she demanded, and I realized, with a sinking heart, that we might have to kill them.
The Master controlled almost everyone in the Midlands. I assumed his reach extended to D'Hara and Westland, too, but I'd never been there. I hadn't even been out of my home village, Stowcroft, until a couple of weeks ago when Belle turned up and Mom and Dave and half the village tried to murder her.
She'd been gone since I was four, and she was five, ten years ago—taken by the Mord'Sith. There weren't many left in those days, because the Master had all the loyal ones killed when he ascended to power—you can't Confess a Mord'Sith without killing her, so they were useless to him. The rest went into hiding, plotting the day the Master would be overthrown and they could return to their temples, serving the rightful Lord Rahl. They still stole the occasional girl, and my sister was one of them.
She only returned when the Master's spies (that is, everyone who wasn't either a Mord'Sith in hiding or a member of the old Resistance to the Master's father, Darken Rahl, in hiding) killed the rest of her Sisters—burned them alive, so she had no chance to revive them. She was heartbroken and lost, and going home seemed like the only thing possible.
I helped her escape Mom and Dave and the rest of the Master's Confessed slaves, and we'd been on the run ever since, trying to find a way to defeat the Master once and for all.
The point, however, was that there was no reasoning with the Confessed. If they were the Master's slaves, killing them would be the only way to survive.
"No," the man answered Belle, staring at us and looking almost completely flabbergasted. "I'm the Seeker, and this is Cara."
"Mistress Cara," the blonde corrected. She was looking at Belle speculatively. "I thought the Mord'Sith were gone." She waved to the stone carving they'd apparently just been reading.
Belle started to shrug, then stopped when I winced. "They are. I'm the last. Or I thought I was." She stared at Mistress Cara just as hungrily as the woman was staring at her.
"Seeker?" I asked, feeling the man was the bigger threat. Like I mentioned, you couldn't Confess a Mord'Sith without killing her, so she probably wasn't the Master's slave. Unless this was some really elaborate game of dress-up for our benefit, which seemed unlikely. The Master would just kill us. "The same one that disappeared fifty-eight years ago? What are you doing here?"
The Seeker glanced at Mistress Cara. "We're just trying to get home."
"What about you? What are you doing here?" demanded Mistress Cara. "Which temple were you trained at? What happened, why did this Master kill my Sisters? Tell me!" She stared at Belle.
I could feel Belle's eagerness to compare notes, and at this point I was having trouble even standing without her support, so I sank to the floor, careful not to land on my injured leg. "Go on," I told Belle. "Just make sure you look for the Shurkia. We need them."
She nodded, and she and Mistress Cara wandered off toward the walls, looking for hidden panels and talking as fast as the river.
"Here," the Seeker said, bending down beside me. "Let me help you with that." He gestured to my leg. "It looks like it needs to be bound up."
In too much pain to argue, I nodded. As he set to work examining my leg, I studied him. He really was very handsome—dark hair and eyes, a body most women would swoon over if they weren't all the Master's slaves, and a face that was not only handsome but kind. I could feel myself warming up to him, even though we knew next to nothing about him. My knowledge of the Seeker of fifty-eight years ago was sketchy at best, gleaned from books and the old storyteller who used to come by our village, until I was nine and the Master came, to have one of his Confessor daughters publicly stoned to death for plotting against him, and the storyteller was caught not being enthusiastic enough with the rocks. Dave and a couple of his friends dragged him up to the Master, and he told them to kill the storyteller. I can still remember his screams.
"What's your name?" the Seeker asked. "I'm Richard."
"Rina," I replied. "That's my sister Belle, with Mistress Cara."
"You're not really looking for the Shurkia, are you?" the Seeker asked. "I was there when they were destroyed. You're not going to find anything."
I shrugged. "Maybe not, but if I were the Master's father, I wouldn't have given all the special, once in a millennia artifacts to one wizard, however loyal I thought he was. And since this is where Lord and Lady Rahl lived before the Master murdered them, I figure it's a better place to look for the spares than most."
I didn't explain why I wanted the Shurkia—if he couldn't figure it out, he wasn't much of a Seeker. Besides, I didn't want to think about it.
"You knew Kahlan?" the Seeker asked, sounding absurdly hopeful.
I frowned at him. "Of course not. The Master murdered her when he was eleven, long before I was born."
"Oh," said the Seeker, now absurdly crestfallen. "It's just—you look kind of like her—"
I blushed. Since the Seeker and the Mother Confessor, who became Lady Rahl, were in love according to all the lore of that time I'd ever read, I took it as the compliment it was no doubt intended to be.
"You're so young," the Seeker went on. A thought seemed to strike him. "You're not—I mean, looking like Kahlan, and—are you a Confessor?"
I thought about lying, but what would be the point? The Seeker had to have noticed by now the way most people tried to kill you if they couldn't immediately recognize you as a fellow slave of the Master's. The fact that Belle and I weren't doing that was a sure sign we weren't ordinary citizens. Technically Belle was my half-sister, and if the Mord'Sith hadn't taken her, the Master would have Confessed her as surely as he did my mother and older brother, Dave. "Yes," I said, and sat up. The Seeker had finished bandaging my leg, and as long as I didn't move it, it didn't hurt.
"You're Kahlan's granddaughter!" the Seeker exclaimed. I couldn't tell if he was pleased or just shocked. "You can help Cara and me get back to our own time!"
I frowned. "So you can do what, exactly? Belle and I are kind of busy, you know."
"If you send me back, I can stop Darken Rahl before he takes over everything and none of this will ever have happened—the Master won't exist! The people will never have been Confessed—you will help me, won't you? I just need you to Confess me while I put together the boxes of Orden—Cara will do the rest." He looked at me hopefully.
I took a breath. "Absolutely not."
The Seeker looked down at his hands. "I know this must be hard for you—"
"Hard for me?" I demanded. I didn't care that my voice was getting louder. "You want me to help you go back in time and change history so that I'll never have existed! Helping you has got to be the last thing I'll do! And we don't need your help getting rid of the Master—Belle and I have a plan, so you can just leave us alone!"
Mistress Cara and Belle were back, called by my hysterical outburst. "Rina!" Belle exclaimed. "What's going on? Are you okay?"
"He wants me to help him go back in time and kill my grandfather!" I said, pointing at the Seeker.
"Look around," the Seeker said, frustrated. "This world is a nightmare. The Master's Confessed everyone, and there's no hope left!"
"There's us," said Belle coldly.
"What's your plan?" Mistress Cara asked.
"If we can find the Shurkia, Rina will use them to induce the Con Dar," Belle said expressionlessly. "Then we will find the Master, she'll Confess everyone nearby, including me, and I'll kill him."
"You'll die," the Seeker stated the obvious, eyes filled with horror.
Belle shrugged. "If the Master finds us, we'll both die and the world will still be under his thumb. We have a chance to stop him."
"You know," I said carefully, watching the Seeker. "I'm not the only daughter of the Master. There were others—I saw them murdered, one when I was nine, two when I was eleven, and another just last year. I don't know why he's overlooked me this long."
"If you won't help us, we understand," the Seeker said. "But I have to get back." He stood, unconsciously matching Mistress Cara's body language.
I was ready to protest the point, not agreeing, in spite of all the evidence, that my world was so terrible the only thing to do was start over from scratch, but I was exhausted, and I didn't think I could get up by myself.
"We have a duty to this world, just as you have a duty to yours," I said at last. "Even if you get back to your own time, there's no guarantee that you'll be able to fix things. If we don't kill the Master, in a few years it will be too late—the Confessed don't really care about the proper farming of crops, raising of families, or building of shelters. The world is dying slowly. If you won't help us, at least don't get in our way."
I thought non-inference was the best any of us could hope for. We could've fought them—I thought I could reach the Seeker's ankle from where I sat, and if I Confessed him I could order him to kill Mistress Cara, which would take care of the going-back-in-time-and-changing-history-so-I-was-never-born thing. Plus, in spite of my hostility, I could tell he would never suspect it. It didn't take a genius to see he was head-over-heels in love with Lady Rahl, and I thought maybe he was Confessed until I remembered she was dead. But he was from the past, so maybe it didn't count? My resemblance to her saved me from suspicion.
But what would killing them accomplish? They weren't actively hostile—the Seeker was awed by my resemblance to his lost love, and clearly Belle and Mistress Cara had gotten along great—and they might be useful. Somehow.
Failing me, they would have to get the Master to Confess the Seeker while he put together the Boxes of Orden. I'd only read a few references to the Boxes, so I wasn't too clear on what that would actually mean, other than that he seemed to think it would send him back in time. To do that, they'd have to get close to the Master. Maybe Belle and I wouldn't need the Shurkia after all—we could use them as a distraction, and kill the Master at the critical moment.
I caught Belle's eye, and knew she was thinking the same thing I was.
"Where exactly does this time-travel thing have to happen?" Belle asked. The Seeker looked at her, confused, and she went on. "I mean, this sort of thing always has real specific instructions—midnight on the seventh day after the summer solstice in the exact geographical center of the Midlands, or something."
Mistress Cara raised her eyebrows. "Good guess."
I had to repress a smirk. Belle is really smart, and I was glad she'd found someone who appreciated that, even if it was a refugee from another time who would just as soon see us obliterated out of existence. It's the thought that counts, right?
"We have to go," the Seeker said. "There has to be a way to find the Master—I'm going to check upstairs…"
He left, and Mistress Cara stayed only to say, "Agiel to the heart ought to do it. He won't expect a direct attack, not after all those years of slave labor," before she followed the Seeker up the stairs.
I looked at Belle, thinking about Mistress Cara's advice, and our own predicament. "Didn't find any Shurkia, did you?" I asked.
Belle shook her head. "No, but I think we've found a distraction that may work just as well."
We made it upstairs in time for Belle to peer around a pillar and report, in a hushed whisper, that the Seeker and Mistress Cara had suborned a really ancient-looking woman to their cause. But she had a Rada-Han around her neck, so who knew what she looked like normally. Apparently, the plan was that What's-Her-Name would convince the Master to meet the Seeker at the deserted hilltop close to the center of the Midlands at midnight, just as Belle had predicted.
"We've got to get there," I whispered, and I knew my eyes were shining with the anticipated triumph of finally putting the Master in the ground. Technically, he was my father, but I think I hated him even more than Belle did.
Somehow, we made it. Belle stole a horse, and lifted me up in front of her. My injured leg hung at an odd angle, but I didn't say anything. I just had to get there. Had to see the Master dead, with my own eyes. I wanted to do it myself, but I knew Belle's agiels were our best bet.
Belle dismounted and helped me down, and I scanned the area for scouts. There was no way the Master would come alone, like the Seeker had no doubt stipulated. Someone who hides behind their power to enslave people is hardly going to do the honorable thing. I hoped the Seeker and Mistress Cara were prepared to fight—then wondered why I even cared. They represented an ending, not just of my life, but of my entire existence. It's one thing to die for your principles, another to cease to exist because of them.
Even Belle seemed a little tense. We waited in the underbrush, and at last the archers showed up, followed by the Seeker and Mistress Cara and finally the Master. Belle and I inched closer.
It happened fast—the Seeker whipped out the Boxes of Orden, set them up like he'd done it a million times before, and the Master's hand shot out, closed around his throat.
Mistress Cara was bleeding from multiple arrow wounds, but she got to the Seeker a second before Belle got to the Master, and struck her agiel against the Seeker's neck.
"Bye, Richard," I muttered, knowing he couldn't hear me. The man was adorable, no two ways about it. But I had a mission.
I threw my knife, and it landed in the Master's neck at the same moment that Belle reached out with her agiel toward the Master's heart, three archers aimed their bows at her, and Richard and Mistress Cara disappeared, along with the Boxes of Orden.
"No…" moaned the Master, but I was watching the archers. In another second, they would fire and Belle would be dead. I couldn't let that happen.
My body shook, my eyes hurt, and suddenly I could send out Confession on my thoughts alone, instead of filtering it through my touch. Instinctively, I turned to glare at the archers—immediately, their eyes flashed to black and they dropped their weapons.
At the same moment, Belle's agiel found the Master's heart. He died without another murmur, slumping where he knelt. I leaned over on my good leg and twisted my knife, just to make sure he was dead.
Belle's and my eyes met over his body, and I felt the extra power leave me. I felt like crying, or sleeping for a week. I couldn't believe it was over.
Belle and I stayed at an honest-to-goodness inn that night. Belle even convinced the very bewildered proprietress to make me a proper gown, unlike the tattered brown one I'd been wearing, now covered in mud and the Master's blood. It was brown, so the stains probably wouldn't show, but we had just saved the world and everything, so I was entitled to a change of outfit. In theory, anyway. In practice, I wasn't sure the landlady even knew how to sew. Drawback of forty-six years of the whole world being Confessed.
After dinner in the bar, where men stared around like they'd never seen alcohol before, I went up to our room, climbing the stairs by clinging to the rail and sort of hopping upward.
At length, Belle appeared. "The people have recovered," she said drily.
I raised my eyebrows at her. "Bar fights?"
"And insolence," she said easily. I guessed one of the men had made a pass at her. Apparently people really had forgotten the golden rule about Mord'Sith: they only tolerate "insolence" from Lord Rahl. And if he's the Master, not even then.
Reminded of my dearly-departed father, I scowled at the floor. "Belle?" I asked, not looking up. "If I ever have a son, and I decide to throw a lifetime's experience away and try and raise him to be a good little male Confessor…" I paused, and looked at her. Her dark eyes gave no indication of what she was thinking. So inconvenient, the way Mord'Sith are immune to a Confessor's stare. "Stop me," I finished, firmly.
Belle grinned. "You got it."
She sat down on the bed beside me, and neither of us spoke for a long moment.
"Think Richard and Cara made it back okay?" I asked.
Belle shrugged. "If they did, either they lost, or they're living in an alternate reality."
"I hope they're in an alternate reality," I said softly. "I liked them."
"I saw," Belle teased. "Looked like you and the Seeker were pretty chummy. Isn't he a little old for you?"
"He's in love with my grandmother, I'd say that makes him lucky that weird time-travel thing didn't turn around and send her here and him back there, or bring us there, too, or cause the universe to implode," I said, torn between laughter and a certain wistful longing.
It was going to take decades before my world was anything like as well put-together as Richard's—fifty-eight years ago, Darken Rahl was in power, yes, and there was lots of war and pain and suffering, but still. There was hope. Hope for a peace that wasn't a complete lie, hinged on the power of a madman.
There was Richard.
Seeing me so serious, Belle asked lightly, "So what do you want to do tomorrow?"
Thoughtfully, I reached out and touched the hilt of her agiel. "Ow!" I shrieked, instinctively jerking away and putting my finger in my mouth. Still, my question was answered.
"Those still work," I pointed out. "So there must be another Rahl somewhere. Won't you have to find whoever it is? The new Lord Rahl, I mean."
"I know who the new Lord Rahl is," Belle said softly.
I sat up straight. "Who?" I asked, racking my brains for a mention, somewhere, of the Master's son, if he had one, or maybe a cousin—
"Silly," Belle laughed. "It's you."
For a second, I just stared at her. Then it sunk in, and I laughed.
I laughed and laughed, and then Belle was laughing, too—I didn't stop until I was crying, but I wasn't really sad—I was lost in planning how to bring the world back up to a respectable level of civilization and prosperity, and it seemed impossible.
But I wasn't worried—I knew Belle had my back.
Wherever Richard was, I only hoped he was half as lucky as me.